Staff Picks: Essential MS Word Tools and Features

So you’ve been using F7 and Find and Replace. Now, it’s time you discover other Microsoft Word tools and features that could make you a more productive copy editor.

Although we’ve heard about books entirely written by computers, we still believe that writing and editing are tasks that cannot fully be done automatically. But that doesn’t mean writers and editors should do the entire content development process manually. In the same way that doctors have medical equipment and carpenters have toolboxes, there are a lot of tools available now to help writers and editors streamline the process. And most of these tools are already available in your favorite word processing software.

You may already know the ever-handy spelling and grammar check and thesaurus features. So we’ve asked our team of copy editors: What Word tools should every writer and editor know? 

Aside from F7 and SHIFT+F7, here are five other word processing features that professional content developers should be familiar with.

Staff Picks #01 - Essential Tools

Original image: “01-22-11 – Handy Manny” by Lynda Giddens on Flickr.
Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

Change tracking and commenting

You may have learned about the proofing or editing marks in your journalism class or in a workshop. When editing on hard copy, changes and comments can be easily seen, but when making changes on soft copy without marking them, finding changes may be very tedious. This is where the change tracking function becomes very useful. So why is it a must-know?

“It also helps in easily finding changes done to the text since these changes are in a different color than the original, unedited text. Whatever changes the reviewer or editor made, they would only be temporary until the writer or senior editor decides to accept or reject them.”

– Nico Lacorte
Production Editor

Tracking changes allows the writer to see the changes made by the copy editor and decide whether or not to accept or reject the changes. In a multichaptered manuscript, it makes looking for changes a breeze as the deleted words and phrases still appear in a Find and in the Reviewing Pane. For a file edited by multiple editors, changes are in different colors per editor so it’s easy to spot who changed what.

“[Tracking changes] is important for discussion of revisions and to see changes that should not have been made.”

– Kim Palanca
Copy Editor

But then, sometimes, copy editors spot something that is not strictly incorrect or is out of the scope of the copyediting request but strikes them as odd and couldn’t just let it pass. Now, instead of using the change tracking function and marking comments in text, the copy editor may opt to insert comment balloons.

“When you want to write notes on several parts of the manuscript, writing them on the page or in text might mess things up. Comment balloons look clean, and you can delete them right away when you don’t need them anymore.”

– Marianne Averilla
Production Editor Trainee

You may also use comment balloons to mark the part of the manuscript you have edited so far in case you need to leave it for a while or items you need to look up or validate later on. To know more about change tracking and commenting, check out MS Word’s support pages here and here.

Contextual spelling

If you’ve been using MS Word and its Spelling and Grammar Check (F7) for a while, you’ll notice its limitations. One of them is that Word’s dictionary doesn’t seem to be updated regularly. (Try to type Facebook.)

Editors advise writers to use spell check with caution as it is meant to catch misspellings, not misusage. Some words may be correctly spelled, for example, “desert” and “dessert,” and they won’t be flagged even if you misused them. Then sometimes, the correct word is not even in the list of suggested revisions.

But if you’re using MS Word 2007 or later, there’s a feature included in the package to work around the second issue. It’s called Contextual Spelling and it flags potentially misused words, such as “it’s” instead of the possessive “its,” with blue wavy lines.

We tried out the Contextual Spelling tool on misused words that a regular spelling check won’t flag, and it was able to catch all of the items listed in this Yahoo! article.

Contextual spelling

Perhaps the reason some MS Word users don’t know about it is that Contextual Spelling is not turned on by default for machines with less than 1 GB of RAM. To know how you can activate Contextual Spelling and enhance your usual F7, check out this page.

Find and Replace wildcards

By now, Find (CTRL+F) and Replace (CTRL+H) are familiar functions already since they also appear in other applications, like browsers and spreadsheets. These features are pretty straightforward: Find lets the user find words, and Replace allows the user to replace instances of a word with another word. There’s an option to review and replace every instance, or do a one-time mass replace of all occurrences in the manuscript.

But if you need to perform more complicated searches (find all figures) and replacements (display last name first in a list of full names), you’d need more than the regular Find and Replace and use wildcards. Now for the beginner or the nontechie, this may look like codes and would be intimidating. But you don’t need to know all of them. Based on our experience, the basic wildcards are the most useful.

“Instead of rereading the full article or manually changing a word that appears 200 times in the text, a quick Find and Replace makes the job faster and easier.”

– Marianne Averilla
Production Editor Trainee

To know more about wildcards and advanced search functions, read this Help article from MS Office.  Also, check out these articles on Graham Mayor’s blog and TechRepublic. Though these are old articles, they illustrate how wildcards can be useful in different types of manuscripts.


You’ve probably heard of macros before. Simply put, a macro, or macroinstruction, carries out a sequence of tasks. That sounds complicated, especially if you’ve used fancy, coded macros before. However, Office applications, like Word and Excel, allow users to record a series of commands into a macro so they don’t need to repeat the series in the next document.

This is useful if you’re working with a style guide that has formatting provisions. For example, your style guide says all instances of “internet” should be initial-capped and italicized. It would be easy to find and replace each instance with a 10 pager, but what if you’re dealing with a whole volume with 50 files of more than 20 pages each?

Some commands can only be accessed by going through different menus or tabs in the ribbon, like setting margins or activating track changes. These can also be recorded and assigned to a shortcut key or a combination of keys.

For more information on using macros to work more efficiently with Word documents, read these posts from Office Help and Intelligent Editing. Once you get comfortable with using macros, you may look for free, useful macros made by editors available on the Web.

Grammar check settings

If you’re using a style guide that has provisions that are out of the ordinary, say, two spaces between sentences, you’d be tempted to do a series of Finds to make sure that there are two spaces after each terminal punctuation. You may employ a similar strategy when checking for mandatory serial commas. But don’t you wish there’s a less tedious way?

Actually, Word allows users to set what items its grammar and spelling check should spot. You can set your checker to flag for two spaces instead of one after each sentence, and you can also set a flag for missing mandatory serial commas. There are also options to flag for style issues, like split infinitives and passive constructions, or frequently misused words, like which vs. that.

Note that you should adjust the settings based on your style guide or the editing requirements of the manuscript you’re working on. Otherwise, grammar check would be more vexing than helpful. Check out this post from The Productivity Hub to know how to adjust your grammar check settings and make it work for you.

Other nifty features

Synonyms shortcut. Well yes, you already know how to use the built-in thesaurus feature, but did you know that you can quickly get synonyms from the right-click menu?

Research. The Research button under the Review tab runs a search for a word and displays relevant entries from built-in reference materials, like dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopedia.

What other Microsoft Word tools and features do you use when you write or edit? Which tools do you use more often than the others? Which tools do you think are still missing in word-processing software? How can these help with productivity and quality? 

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